Congress moves quickly on range of workforce bills
Acknowledging the increasing demands on government agencies, Congress is moving quickly this week to introduce and advance a range of bills affecting parts of the federal workforce, including legislation on locality pay and collective bargaining rights.
"I think there is more energy, and it's a product of the times," said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
On Thursday, three House Democrats unveiled legislation that would move Transportation Security Administration employees from their pay-for-performance system, the Performance Accountability and Standards System, onto the General Schedule pay system and under Title 5, which would grant them collective bargaining rights and other protections available to the rest of the civil service workforce such as whistleblower protections and regulations of the shift scheduling and training systems.
That bill, introduced by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, goes further than a 2007 amendment to a bill implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, which would have just provided screeners with collective bargaining rights. The House passed that measure, but the Senate stripped it from the commission legislation after President Bush promised to veto it.
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called the bill "long overdue."
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved John Berry's nomination to be the next head of the Office of Personnel Management, passed five pieces of management legislation and a resolution commending public servants.
Among the bills was the 2009 Non-Foreign Area Retirement Equity Assurance Act, which would move federal employees in Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific territories from cost-of-living adjustments that are based on assessments of the prices of goods like rent and food, into the locality pay system which covers the 48 contiguous states and is based on an analysis of private sector salaries.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the bill's sponsor, introduced similar legislation in 2008 and the Senate passed it. But the House committees with jurisdiction over the legislation failed to act on it before the end of the congressional session.
Akaka said passing the legislation quickly was important in this economic climate because declining costs of living meant that federal employees in Alaska and Hawaii would receive smaller increases than their colleagues earning locality-based raises. Unlike locality pay, COLAs are not counted as part of pay for federal retirement benefits or Thrift Savings Plan contributions, and Akaka has argued that the difference puts federal employees in Alaska and Hawaii at a disadvantage to employees who work in the lower 48 states.
Darryl Perkinson, national president of the Federal Managers Association, echoed Akaka's assessment.
"The compensation package resulting from enactment of this bill will make the federal government more competitive," he said. "This is essential if the highly critical missions of the federal agencies in Hawaii and Alaska are to be met."
The Senate committee also approved legislation to require government documents be written clearly and concisely, and an annual resolution kicking off Public Service Recognition week which is from May 4 through May 10.
The House on Wednesday also passed legislation that would make it easier for federal employees to work part-time at the end of their careers, automatically enroll new federal employees in the Thrift Savings Plan, and enable retirees to return to government for short periods of time without paying a financial penalty.
Stier praised the early action on workforce legislation, saying it made the actual passage and enactment of significant reforms more likely. But he added that more work is necessary.
"I think we're going to need to see more members than we've seen so far engaged in these efforts," he said. "Every committee is in some way responsible for making government more effective."